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Is Recycling Plastic Worthwhile?

By Kim Robson:

We like supporting companies that practice environmentally-aware policies, including using recycled plastic in their products. But recycled plastic raises an interesting question: Which is better — creating more demand for recycled plastic, which would help increase its price as a world commodity and make it more worthwhile for recycling companies, or is it simply increasing the demand for plastic in general?

Our feelings about bottled waterare clear: there’s no reason for it and we all should be drinking filtered tap water from reusable bottles. But increasing the demand for recycled plastic is an important part of the recycling loop. Demand for recycled plastic is, sadly, very low.

Also, once recycled plastic has reached the end of its usability, it is no longer recyclable. In other words, recycled plastic is NOT recyclable. Recycled plastic is considered “No. 7 – Other” because of its mixed nature.

On the other hand, increasing the demand for recycled plastic in the U.S. might help counter the current plastic recycling ban imposed by China. Half of U.S. recycling is exported to China, who also takes recyclable waste from Canada, the U.K. and Japan. In 2016, China received over 7.3 million metric tons of recyclable material, plus they manufactured 74.7 metric tons of their own virgin plastic.

Nearly all of the plastic in the ocean comes from only ten rivers in the world:

  • Yangtze River
  • Indus River
  • Yellow River
  • Hai River
  • Nile River
  • Ganges River
  • Pearl River
  • Amur River
  • Niger River
  • Mekong River

Five of them run through China. The Yangtze River alone carries about 22 metric tons of garbage into the ocean each year. Starting last January, in an effort to stop plastic from entering the ocean, China — per an agreement with the UN — has banned all imports of paper and plastic for recycling that have a greater than 1% contamination rate. For comparison, Recology, a waste management company headquartered in San Francisco and perhaps the most advanced recycling facility in the country, has the lowest bale contamination rate in the U.S., averaging 5% per bale.

The reason our contamination rates are so high is that Americans aren’t great at rinsing/cleaning what goes into the recycle bin, which results in higher contamination rates in the bales. The contamination can vary from minor (some peanut butter left in a jar) to toxic (hazardous household cleaners). Once everything is shipped to China, workers there have to sort it all out, and much of it ends up in landfills. Or rivers.

Recycling is a business, not a charity. We’ve been doing a lousy job of sorting and following recycling guidelines, and China has decided they’re fed up with dealing with it. According to Rogue Waste Systemsin Oregon, “Right now, by definition, that material out there is garbage. It has no value. There is no demand for it in the marketplace. It’s garbage.”

Bottom line, we need to embrace zero waste solutions. Recycling was never going to be the answer. China’s ban may force a lot of businesses to come up with new solutions.

About Green Mom

Fredrica Syren, the author and founder of Green-Mom.com, was born in Sweden. Her mother was a classically trained chef who introduced her to many eclectic flavors and skills at a young age. Her mom’s passion for the outdoors and gardening planted the seed for her own love of nature and healthy eating. She received a degree in journalism and has worked as a print, Internet and broadcasting journalist for many years with big businesses within Europe and the United States. After her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she with pre-cancer, Fredrica changed her career to become a full time yoga teacher and activist. A longtime world traveler, foodie and career woman, she was exposed to many facets of life, but nothing inspired her more than becoming a mom. After her first-born, Fredrica began a food blog focusing on local, seasonal, organic & vegetarian dishes. Years of food blogging developed into the cookbook Yummy in My Tummy, Healthy Cooking for the Whole Family. Upon the arrival of her second child, Fredrica founded Green-Mom.com. Her vision was to establish a site providing insight about gardening, home and personal care, baby & child, and of course food & nutrition. Green-Mom.com hosts many talented writers shedding light on ways to incorporate eco-friendly and nutritious practices for busy families. She is an advocate for organic, local and sustainable businesses. Fredrica hopes to inspire social change through her lifestyle, passion and business. Fredrica lives with her husband James Harker-Syren and their three children in San Diego, CA.

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